A general strike went into effect yesterday, December 5. Leading the strike were unions of the national rail workers, the SNCF and the RATP. Bus and metro drivers, airport workers, Air France, nurses and other worker’s and self-employed groups joined in solidarity against the grievance.
Which is: President Macron’s desire to reform state pensions. There are currently 42 different pension regimes, each one determining different conditions for retirement such as age and monthly distribution. Some retirees receive multiple pensions, accumulated as they switched jobs or careers. Macron would like to equalize and simplify the regimes, creating a universal point system that would cover years worked. Administratively, that would save the public purse a pretty penny. The new pension law would also amount to real losses in pension benefits for some people, however.
While the official French retirement age in general was raised by ex-President Hollande from 60 to 62 — one of the lowest in the developed countries — the “special regimes” under which the SNCF and RATP are ruled allow for retirement as young as 55 years. Those workers would see their retirement delayed as a result of Macron’s pension reforms. They are not at all happy about it.
However, only about 7 percent of 2017 retirees were under 60 years of age. Among these, the SNCF and other “special regimes” account for the vast majority. They also receive significantly higher pensions. The average age of retirement in France is 62 and one month old. The average pension payment in 2017 was 1422.00 euros, or $1575.00 in today’s rate exchange, and it’s less for women. It isn’t much, even if the French don’t pay for essential health care, and enjoy other financial supports for retirees.
Some of the foreign media coverage of the strike has used the word “paralysed” to describe the effect. In Nice, we did observe traffic snarls out of the ordinary as people took to their cars to get around, but otherwise commerce and leisure went on as usual. Today the tram was running, and so were at least some buses.
The strike had been planned for a while, so everyone had plenty of advance notice. However, this strike is historic in size and “illimité,” indefinite in length. We are not sure our December 19 flight won’t be cancelled due to ongoing work stoppages at airports. So far, the government says it will continue to negotiate and warned that violence will not be tolerated.
One precedent for what might happen is the last general strike close to this size, which took place in 1995, also in response to an attempt at pension reform. After three weeks, the government capitulated.
A couple of other scenarios come to mind, that could lead to mounting frustrations and increasing pressure on Macron to cave. Other parties could join the strike, such as truckers who are against a fuel tax increase. The more militant parties could take to violence, provoking a government response and more protests.
To those of us who see life for many Americans and British becoming a merciless dystopia, we wonder why there’s this enormous reaction in France to a .02 cents rate hike, and an attempt by a responsible government to restore balance to pensions. I don’t quite understand why the French support this protest by a small percentage of the population who retire younger and richer than the majority.
But something is afoot, worldwide, isn’t it?